Solutions…? Refugees and governance in the face of crises

Mahamadou-Issoufou-Niger-PresidentWhat we want is not just official development assistance in this form, but reform of global governance. World trade must be fair. There must be more investment in Africa. Official development assistance is good, but it’s not sufficient.’

Mahamadou Issoufou, President, Niger

On BBC Radio Essex’s drive-time show, I was once asked: ‘How can we solve the refugee crisis?’

I’d been asked the same thing about four days before, on the World Service. It had come as a surprise then (I believe one part of my answer had been ‘I am not the Foreign Secretary’), but by the time I spoke to BBC Essex, I was ready.

‘Well,’ I began, addressing one of the strongest areas of support for UKIP. ‘If we’re serious about stopping people from being so desperate they have to run from their homes, we need to restructure the way the global economic system operates; to redistribute wealth so that people are not so poor they are driven to desperation…’

I didn’t stick around to see how that played with the people of Essex, but I hope it inspired some engaging debate…

… We shall come back to the matter of ‘solutions’ later in this piece. But first, to Tunisia – the starting point and arguably sole success story of the collection of campaigns, protests, revolutions and in some cases wars known collectively as the ‘Arab Spring’.

Tunisia’s Arab Spring – the catalyst for every single other act within the wider phenomenon – began with one man’s frustrations.

Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year-old from Sidi Bouzid, had hoped to attend university, but was forced by his family’s poverty to set up instead as a street vendor.

He earned US$140 per month, but was still consistently forced to bribe police officers, who invented reasons to confiscate his possessions. When he attempted to meet the governor to complain (and have his goods returned), she refused to see him.

His continued poverty and his inability to receive justice from a heavy-handed and remote police force and government led him to set fire to himself – the act which inspired all the campaigns, protests, revolutions and in some cases civil wars which have been bound together and known as the ‘Arab Spring’.

In Tunisia, the process was swift. On 14th January 2011, ten days after Bouazizi’s death and 28 days after his self-immolation, the state’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down, and a new democratic system was introduced.

It has not been without problems – particularly, when, in 2013, the state’s first government, made up of the democratic Muslim party Ennahda, stepped down after the killing of two politicians – but the new system has, so far, met each challenge and overcome it: Ennahda continued to work closely with the new government it had made way for, helping to create and enact a constitution which includes rights for women, for workers, to free healthcare and pledges to protect the environment.

In October last year, Tunisia elected a new party – Nidaa Tounes – to government (it won 85 of the 217 available seats, while Ennahda finished second with 69. It and Ennahda formed a coalition – necessarily loose because Nidaa had campaigned on an expressly secularist ticket).

At the time, observers expressed some concern about Nidaa, not least because it was led by Beji Caid Essebsi (now Tunisia’s President), the 88 year-old former foreign secretary who served in Ben Ali’s government, while its Secretary General, Mihsen Marzouk, is a left-winger who had been an outspoken critic of the dictator.

It seemed the party’s sole true unifying factor was not what it stood for, but what it stood against: the religiously-guided democratic outlook of Ennahda, and the extreme views of some tiny minority parties in Tunisia. (This matter is considered in detail in my book, The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis)

Now in – an albeit loose – coalition with Ennahda, Nidaa’s continued unity was always under pressure. And so it has proven, with 32 members of the government resigning their positions.

The 32 – all on Nidaa’s left wing – have stepped down because of what they see as an attempt to turn the party’s leadership into a dynastic progression. They claim to have been prevented from entering their party’s leadership meeting on 31st October by men with clubs, while inside, attempts were made by Essebsi’s son, Hafdeh, to steer through a hereditary transfer of power from his father. Hafdeh denies the latter claim.

The resignations now leave Nidaa with 53 seats, (though the 32 have stated they will continue to work and vote with Nidaa in Parliament), making Ennahda the largest party in parliament by default.

Once again, the nascent Tunisian democracy is faced with a challenge. Because Ennahda is the largest party on merit – it, after all, won all of its seats, and has held together because it; unlike Nidaa, is a genuine political party whose members share an outlook on most things. It must have been tempting for it to simply snatch the reigns of power, seeking a new coalition and governing at its head.

But though it won its seats, Ennahda ‘lost’ the election. To form a government because its opponent who won fell apart may be legal, but would be dangerously close to breaking the spirit, if not the letter of the law of a system which has existed for less than five years.

Fortunately, Ennahda has experience in moments of crisis. In 2013, it stepped down not because two of its own members of parliament had been assassinated, but because two members of other parties had been murdered by terrorists (again, discussed in detail in The Toss of a Coin). And once again, it has risen to the challenge.

‘Stability is crucial for Tunisia,’ said Ennahda’s head of external relations, Rafik Abdessalem. ‘Only a coalition government can deliver a fairer, more inclusive, democratic and prosperous Tunisia. We have good communication with the Prime Minister and there’s a strong willingness within Ennahda to continue to support the government.’

It is too easy to compare Tunisia with its neighbours Libya – where refusal by political groups to co-operate was part of the cause of the collapse of the state’s government and contributed to its slide back to civil war – and Egypt, where a military dictator smashed its first ever democratically-elected government from power after less than two years. The three countries’ situations and outlooks were always different, and each faced obstacles the others did not.

But it is equally worth noting that the mark of a system’s success is not that it never faces challenges, but how it meets them. Tunisia’s situation is far from ideal, but those operating within it are – at present – ensuring it holds together. It is a strange positive, but a positive nevertheless, and it is to be hoped Ennahda and their contemporaries continue to work not simply for their own benefit, but the benefit of the system as a whole.


In Syria, meanwhile, compromise and cooperation have never been close at hand.

This is not especially surprising, as the state’s bitter civil war – now in its 57th month – was started when the state’s President, the dictator Bashar al-Assad, ordered his troops to open fire on peaceful demonstrators and now includes representatives from several different states as well as IS and offshoots of Al Qaeda, each murdering and some using torture to attempt to reach a ‘victory’ which is likely to be bad for the majority of Syrians whoever snatches it.

Late last week (12th November), the Russian government – along with Iran, Assad’s only supporters outside Syria itself – proposed an eight-point plan for ‘peace’ in Syria.

In itself, it’s worth welcoming as a concept – far too few people anywhere in the world are thinking of what a Syrian ‘peace’ could look like or how to make it happen, preferring instead to dream of ‘victory’ and not quite grasping that with victory comes the job of building a future in and for the state – but only as a concept.

Because the proposal itself is simply unworkable – and arguably immoral – in that it proposes a constitutional reform and then new presidential elections, but leaves the door open to Assad himself standing in those elections.

As a result, moderate rebel groups dismissed the proposals and demanded Assad step down.

There is no doubt that a number of the groups in Syria have disgraced themselves throughout the state’s civil war.

The Free Syrian Army, which opposes and is opposed by Assad and IS, has killed civilians and opened fire on schools and hospitals; Al Nusra (an affiliate of Al-Qaeda) which opposes Assad and IS, and treats the FSA with neutrality most of the time (the two have been known also to fight against one another, and to co-operate) is one of two groups Human Rights Watch alleges are caging Alawite Syrians and using them as human shields to try to prevent government bombing raids.

IS – which opposes Assad, the FSA and Al-Nusra, in fact everyone it comes across – is widely and correctly known and loathed for its despicable behaviour, including practising torture and videoing murders including mass decapitations and burning.

But Assad’s acts should not be forgotten. His forces have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian centres in a state he is supposed to govern and where he is supposed to have responsibility for the protection of civilians. He is believed to be responsible for around 75-80 per cent of the 300,000 deaths in the war so far.

It may be that an international court somehow rules in his favour (though it is hard to see how: the deliberate targeting of civilians is a war crime, and the murder of several hundreds of thousands of people an unacceptable act, made all the worse by the fact that he and his forces targeted the people they killed), but at the very least, he must stand trial for these acts.

Peace – not victory – must be the priority for Syria. But that cannot come unless Assad faces; and to be clear also receives, justice. A plan which called for the immediate execution of Assad would be unacceptable, but so is one which argues he should be able to ‘go back’ to being a simple politician again.

Assad must face trial, so that Syria can be helped to develop its own solutions to the massive rifts between its communities.


The European Union has been working on a ‘solution’ of its own – though only to a ‘problem’ it believes it is facing.

On Thursday (12th November), delegates including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and others began to talk in earnest about a proposal they hope might address the large number of people entering the EU from Turkey.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron, in what is a first in his time at the head of the state’s government, was the first to volunteer money to the scheme. His €400m pledge would in fact make the UK the project’s second highest contributor.

Though the details are to be agreed at a conference with Turkish President Recep Erdogan, currently scheduled to take place on 22nd November, the deal would in effect see the EU hand Turkey €3bn over two years.

In exchange, Turkey would patrol its border with Greece and prevent Syrian and other refugees crossing into the EU.

Angela Merkel claims one aim of the scheme is to ‘make illegal migration legal’ (from Turkey to Europe), suggesting that a further part of the deal will be for arrangements to be made by which the EU will accept refugees each year, who will then be allowed to settle according to a quota system across all EU states.

Another component of the deal is expected to be that Turkey must provide decent education to the estimated 900,000 children now in Turkey (the total number of Syrian men, women and children now in Turkey is more than 2.3m), and allow adults to enter its employment market.

But it is beneath the surface details that flaws in the idea are revealed.

First of all, because ‘quotas’ of refugees have been suggested at EU level before, and have consistently blocked by Spain, the UK, Poland and Hungary. It is hard to see a deal now done to legally codify such an agreement with a non-EU partner would be any more likely to be accepted (and raises the question of whether Cameron actually understands the deal he has so far bought into).

The second problem is less glaringly obvious, but potential even more serious.

Because part of the reason these proposals have been made – and set such a short deadline for agreement – is not the EU’s desire for a ‘quick fix’ (though that almost certainly exists), but the demands of Recep Erdogan himself.

Fresh from his election victory, he has decided to ‘negotiate’ this treaty at speed, stating that if it is not agreed fast, the €3bn cost will increase (his negotiating tactic being to threaten, rather than to persuade).

One may well ask why he is so eager to sign up.

The answer, in as far as there is a clear answer, is the EU itself.

Many within Turkey have campaigned for EU membership over the course of the last decade or so, but the state has been continuously refused on the ground of its poor human rights record, including the systematic persecution of journalists critical of the state (this year, Turkey achieved the dubious honour of being ranked 149th out of 180 states for media freedom) along with violence related to the state’s Kurdish population.

But for the EU to agree to work with a state on refugees – and more precisely for it to do a deal in which it agrees that refugees should stay in a state rather than be allowed to the EU – the 28 member states must agree to name it a ‘safe state’.

In Turkey’s case, this would mean restrictions would be relaxed on offering Turkish citizens EU visas – an immediate ‘win’ for Turkey – and that one of the major barriers to Turkish membership of the EU would have been lifted. This is a high prize for Erdogan, but would require the EU to drop its requirements on human rights – a step which it would never be able to ‘untake’.*

*On a personal note, I believe there are several strong cases for Turkey to join the EU, and support the idea wholeheartedly: but only if it agrees to meet the EU’s basic standards on human rights. Though Turkey has done a magnificent and praise-worthy job in the face of the Syrian crisis, these standards are one of the EU’s major strengths, and have the real potential to improve lives around the world, as states strive to meet them.

To abandon them simply because it is more convenient to prevent refugees arriving in the EU would be a spectacular mistake, and a signal to the world that principled defences of people’s rights and freedoms are merely a stance, to be dropped whenever trouble strikes.

It is extremely possible that Merkel’s proposal that the EU would do a deal to take refugees each year from Turkey is an attempt to ‘smudge’ this decision – in effect a statement that Turkey is a ‘partner’ on this issue, but not a ‘safe state’ where refugees can stay.

But it is hard to imagine what Erdogan would gain from anything short of an announcement of Turkey’s ‘safe state’ status, and hard to see why he would agree to anything else.

It is quite likely, however, that the UK, Hungary, Poland and Spain would back Turkey’s ‘upgrade’, putting their own fears over human rights, while Sweden, which has accepted the second-highest number of Syrian refugees of all EU states (after Germany), would be unlikely to let it pass. On this, it is sadly hard to conclude it is anything but correct.

The EU’s latest proposal on refugees, then, combines requirements its hardliners, including the UK, will never accept on quotas, and a proposal no member should accept on dropping one of the Union’s greatest policies: to promote human rights around the world; which none should (but most likely will).

These issues will face any policy designed to address the issue of refugees entering Europe, but the EU must do better than its current plan, regardless of threats from Erdogan.


The EU’s proposals did not end there, however.

At the same conference, at Valletta, Malta on Thursday 12th November, the political bloc agreed and announced it would hand over €2bn to African states, also with the intention of reducing the flow of refugees and other people into the EU.

This was the matter the conference had originally been called to deliberate upon, after more than 1,000 people had drowned in April while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. The deaths were themselves largely the result of EU member states’ refusal to fund the Mare Nostrum Mediterranean rescue operation, a decision which took roughly four days from announcement to enaction.

It is unclear why it took more than six months for the same states to meet and discuss the wider issue of people being so desperate to escape their own states that they would risk drowning to do so.

The money is supposed to be available for training and small business grants, and for dealing with food shortages.

But, like the potential Turkish deal, it contains major faults.

The first is that as Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, whose comment began this piece, points out, the money is simply not enough to deliver what large parts of Africa now need.

We will come back to that in a moment.

Because the second fault is so large that it is impossible to imagine how it could have been missed by its proposers in the EU.

In the deal’s fourth paragraph, the EU states that some of the new money it is offering must be used to ‘fight irregular migration, migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings’.

The problem is that in states like Eritrea and Sudan, where governments use torture and oppression against their citizens (Eritrea, for example, conscripts citizens into its army for indefinite time periods, then uses the army against its own citizens. It also imprisons people without either trying them, or specifying the length of their sentences). It is from this government-enacted horror that Eritrean and Sudanese refugees run, and what the EU is proposing to do is to hand money to those regimes in order to prevent people escaping their clutches.

And so we are left, once again, with an EU-proposed ‘solution’ which is nothing of the sort. Which is, instead, a payment which will not be enough to lift anyone from poverty, but will be enough to help regimes which terrorise their own people to prevent those people escaping that terror – with the added extra of an official EU seal of approval.

So what can be done? In the world in which we live, which has for so long operated on a requirement for extreme poverty to exist, we are swiftly running out of options.

Some may suggest arrest and repatriation, but we are all aware that in many – if not all – cases, this will mean death for those we ‘send back’.

Others propose (and have built) walls. But the two problems with walls is that they are a challenge; and someone will always rise to defeat a challenge, and that walls always come down. Our only choice is whether they do so in an ordered, peaceful way, or with violence and chaos.

The sad fact is that we live in a world which has always produced more than enough food for every single human being on the planet to eat a varied, balanced, healthy diet, and yet every day people starve to death. A world with more than enough water for people to drink, and yet people die of thirst. And a world in which medical science performs miracles every day, yet people cannot get simple treatments for diseases which no longer threaten lives in richer parts of the world.

We live in a world where half of all money in existence will – by January – be in the hands of just one per cent of the world’s people, and where just 5.5 per cent of the world’s wealth is owned by the least wealthy 80 per cent of people combined.

We live in a world where the causes of the international refugee crisis – war and shortage – are in fact largely based on the same two factors: lack of access to money and resources, even though there is certainly enough of the first to go round (and as a purely human construct, no reason for that ever to change), and the world as a whole has no shortage of the second.

And we live in a world where television, the internet and transport innovations have brought us all closer to one another than at any previous point in human history. Of course those who see they have too little will attempt to make it to the places where people have enough – and often too much.

If we are serious about ending the refugee crisis, and about saving the millions of lives which are currently at rich, we have to go even further than Mahamadou Issoufou. We have to commit to a new economic system in which people are the focus, and in which resources are provided to all, so all can live a decent, comfortable life.

Nothing else has worked, and neither will it. It is time to change.


A footnote, about the attack on Paris by IS on Friday night.

In the wake of the attack a number of people began to suggest the UK should ‘close its borders’ citing the ‘threat of IS entering countries pretending to be refugees’.

They were assisted in their calls by the claim that the man who had blown himself up outside the Stade de France had died next to his passport, which ‘revealed’ he was a Syrian refugee who had been rescued from a sinking boat in 2013.

Even as the story played itself out in national and social media, it was confusing that a passport would have survived an explosion which blew its owner to pieces.

And now, it turns out, the passport was fake. You can read about it here.

There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that this man was a refugee and the man most wanted as the ringleader of the France attacks was in fact born in France.

As I noted on Friday, IS is an organisation which desires dominance over people. Its strike on France was a part of its war against those who fight it, but its transparent attempt to implicate refugees in it – by deliberately leaving a passport to be found which suggested the man was a refugee, far enough from the explosion to survive it – was something else.

Because IS does not wish to allow people to escape its ‘new state’. It is an embarrassment to it that people would rather live in Europe, or Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan – even Iraq – than live where it ‘rules’.

Even if it were not, IS wants people to rule, to be in charge of, to force to live the way it decides they should. It has been pathetically unable to prevent people escaping its clutches. But if it can trick wealthy states into refusing Syrians a place to stay, then where must they go? Back to Syria, and back to IS.

We must all be better at thinking, and slower at jumping to conclusions.

Rory O’Keeffe is an international journalist and the author of The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis, available from Amazon and the Publishers Website.


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